By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Illustration by Peter Bennet
I know that you got a job Miz Cheney But your husband’s heart problem’s complicating.
On last week’s opening episode of Survivor: Pearl Islands, the big question was who’d be the first to get the boot. There were three likely victims: the uncool Lillian (she’s 51 and a scoutmaster), young Ryan, who was quickly pegged as a wussy-boy, and gossiping Nicole, a 24-year-old massage therapist from Hermosa Beach who spent her time scheming ineptly. It was no contest. All seven of her Morgan Tribe teammates voted to bounce Nicole, who took her mortifying early dismissal with aplomb: “I knew going in that my biggest weakness was going to be keeping my mouth shut.” Such self-knowledge would make Socrates beam.
It’s just one measure of Survivor’s pop-culture genius that the phrase “vote off the island” has become a national idiom. You hear it in discussions of the Democratic presidential campaign, where everyone is banding together to get rid of Howard Dean (who keeps winning those financial-immunity challenges), the California recall, and even the New York Stock Exchange, whose chairman Richard Grasso was forced to resign when news broke that his pay package was worth $140 million. Although he’d broken no law (except, possibly, God’s), Wall Street needs visible scapegoats to mask its continuing malfeasance and greed. Mr. Grasso, the tribe has spoken.
Of course, these days the real fun lies in guessing who’s going to get tossed out of the Bush Tribe because of the troubles in Iraq. It’s bound to happen. After all, things have gotten so bad that Senator Edward Kennedy recently emerged from one of his long hibernations (he must store food in those cheeks) and turned into “Ted Kennedy,” the imaginary left-wing firebrand that the right pretends is the bogeyman. Teddy dubbed the war a “fraud” (before drifting back into his customary stupor), and millions agreed. The president’s poll numbers are slipping, General Clark’s in the race, and somebody needs to be sacrificed to appease the gods, if not the swing voters, for the administration’s hubris in claiming Iraq would be easy.
Although Bush is famous for being obsessed with loyalty, don’t kid yourself. He has a rich kid’s sense of what that means. The people who work for him are the help, and if they prove a liability — like ex–Secretary of the Treasury Paul O’Neill, who couldn’t sell Bush’s floundering economic program — they’re soon out the door. Indeed, during the big 16-word State of the Union “Yellowcake” kerfuffle, it briefly looked as if the White House was even preparing to make Condoleezza Rice a sacrificial lamb. Then somebody evidently remembered that Condi helps inoculate Bush against the charge that he is, well, what he actually is but can pretend that he isn’t because he’s got an African-American woman by his side.
So who can take the fall for Iraq? Not Colin Powell, who was widely reviled by the right for being insufficiently bellicose; not Defense underlings like Paul Wolfowitz or Douglas Feith, because it would diminish the president to suggest that they called the shots. While it might be possible to dump the unhinged Rummy (remember when our generals were bonkers and the civilians sane?), he’s so much the cocky face of American military action in Iraq that to dismiss him now would be to admit that the war was a blunder. As Tuesday’s U.N. speech made clear, Bush will never do that.
Believe it or not, the odd man out is eerie Dick Cheney, who, like Hermosa Beach’s estimable Nicole, has no small trouble controlling his own mouth. Two weeks ago on Meet the Press, he gave an interview that made headlines for its dishonesty: He insisted that the Bush tax cuts account for only 25 percent of the 2003 deficit (it’s actually 39 percent) and, shockingly, kept afloat the notion that Saddam was somehow tied to 9/11. This bad performance could have proved calamitous had faux tough guy Tim Russert — famous for grilling powerless newcomers yet obsequious to authority — asked the proper follow-up questions to Cheney’s shifty answers.
One audience that couldn’t have been thrilled by Cheney’s interview was the White House. The Bush administration is eager to shift the argument away from the official reasons for the war (they now sound unconvincing) and on to the need for that $87 billion. That’s why, after months of strenuously linking Saddam to September 11, Bush, Rice and Rumsfeld now explicitly deny any such connection. They’ve moved on. Only Cheney hasn’t heard the news. He keeps bulldozing forward.
This should come as no surprise, for Cheney is probably the administration’s most hardcore right-winger, the hawkiest of hawks. Not only was he a reactionary congressman — his voting record was more conservative than Newt Gingrich’s — but, as a former secretary of defense and CEO of Halliburton, he’s the military-industrial complex made flesh. Cheney may not be the Bush team’s craziest member, but he’s surely the creepiest. Holding an office that FDR’s vice president, John Nance Garner, once compared to a “bucket of warm spit,” he has been unable to decide whether he’s Dr. Strangelove (“I vill play all zuh roles”) or Dr. Evil, one of the few pop-culture figures that Bush is known to enjoy. He often appears to think he’s actually president.